College Essays: Examples, Prompts, and Topics

college essays
  • Published Date: April 14, 2017

For many students, the first experience with college-level academic writing comes with the college essay.  Whether it is an admission essay for a particular university or an essay written as part of a scholarship application, many students find themselves overwhelmed by the thought of writing a college essay.  After all, these essays tend to vary from the standard five-paragraph essay format that many students rely on throughout their high school academic careers.  In addition, they often focus on personal stories or details, taking a narrative format that differs dramatically from what most students have learned to write.

Do not worry.  We are here to help you.  This article will provide you with the information that you need to help you write an outstanding college essay that not only highlights your abilities as a writer, but also your strengths as a candidate.  Admissions and scholarships are highly competitive processes, so we cannot promise you that your essay will get you the spot or the scholarship you desire.  However, we can promise you that if you follow our steps, you will write an essay that helps you stand out from the crowd and present the best version of yourself.

Essay Prompts

The first step in writing your college essay is understanding the instructions you were provided.  In most application essays, you will be given an essay prompt.  Many colleges and universities use the Common Application process, and you can review the prompts for the 2016-2017 application process here.  In addition, at that site you can find out what percentages of applicants chose to write about specific prompts; if you respond to a less-frequently chosen prompt, you increase your chances of standing apart from the crowd.  Other universities and most scholarship committees use their own prompts.  While these prompts may change from year-to-year, there are certain themes that recur.  These themes include:

-Describing a person you admire;

-Describing a time you overcame a challenge;

-Describing a time you changed your perspective or opinion of something;

-Describing how you handled some type of adversity;

-Describing a time you failed;

-Identifying a problem and describing how you would solve it;

-Why you want to attend a particular school;

-Why you deserve a scholarship;

-Your vision of your future;

-Extracurricular or volunteer activities; and

-Favorite books or classes.

While you may encounter topics with other prompts, most essays are going to relate back to something on the above list.  If you look at the list, it should be clear to you that there is an overarching theme among the topics; personal growth.  Therefore, when you sit down to write your college essay, you should be thinking about how your essay can demonstrate personal growth in the past and the potential for personal growth in the future.

Different Types of College Essays

The way that the prompt is written will probably help you determine what type of essay you are going to write.  The vast majority of college essays will be in the personal narrative format; they will be written in the first-person about things you personally did or experienced.  However, the prompt may call for you to write a different type of essay.  For example, if you are asked to describe why your favorite book is your favorite, even though you may be writing parts of it from a first-person perspective, it will actually be a persuasive essay.  If your essay calls for an analysis of something, such as asking you how you overcame adversity, then it will actually be an.  If you are simply describing an event that occurred, then the essay will be an expository essay.  Finally, if you are supposed to make an argument and convince the reader that you are right, then the essay will be an argumentative essay.  Understanding the goal of the essay is important because it will help you structure your essay in a cohesive manner and achieve the essay’s goal.

College Essay Topics

Because you are given prompts, your choice of topic may be somewhat limited.  If you have had an exceptional experience and that experience relates to one of the topics you have been given, then, if you are comfortable sharing that topic, use it.  A compelling personal story that directly relates to the question will not only engage the readers, but also set you apart from the competition.  One of our writers came from a family with a history of domestic violence; she used that history to describe why she wanted to attend law school and become a domestic violence prosecutor.  It was both compelling and relevant.  However, in this age of social media and readily available information, do not make up a story that you feel is compelling in order to make yourself seem more interesting. It is too easy for the reader to Google details and see if they can verify your story.  Instead, choose a prompt where you naturally stand apart from the crowd.

Because these essays are about you, as a person, the range of potential topics is limitless.  However, remember that you are trying to demonstrate why you are a better candidate than the competition.  Below are some things about you that you could incorporate into your essay:

-Unusual or difficult accomplishments, such as becoming an Eagle Scout or winning a competition;

-An unusual approach to adversity;

-A story that shows you helping another person through a difficult time;

-Volunteer work;

-Fun hobbies;

-Hard work;

-Family values; and

-An appreciation of diversity.

Thesis Statements

One you have decided what topic you are going to write about, then you need to write your thesis statement.  A thesis statement is a concise one or two sentence statement that tells the reader what you are going to write about in your essay and, frequently, how you are going to support that topic.

Some thesis statements for college essays could be:

-The best thing my parents ever did for me was have me start mowing our lawn when I was ten years old; it taught me to take pride in my home, the value of hard work, and a skill that I can use to make money throughout my lifetime.

-While there are many factors that make Texas A&M a fine university, I want to attend school there because I have been impressed by the high quality of professors in all of its areas.

-Like many people who enter into a helping profession, I am motivated to pursue a degree in criminal justice because of a personal experience with crime; I was sexually assaulted in my teens and the responding officer at the hospital helped influence how I viewed myself after that assault.

-Although it seems almost silly as an adult, the proudest moment of my life is when I stood up to a bully who was picking on a classmate in the sixth grade.

College Essay Sources

Because most college essays will be narrative formats, you probably will not need to find sources for them.  However, there may be times when you need to back up information with a source. For example, if you are writing about surviving a sexual assault, you may want to include statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault and you will need sources to back up those statements.  In an admission or scholarship essay, you probably will not have the same stated restrictions on sources that you would for a traditional academic society.  However, you still want to choose high-quality sources if you use them.

The general rule is to use current sources (no more than 3 years old, when possible), from reputable sources such as academic publications, newspapers, magazines, and .org or .com websites.  Wikipedia is a great source for information if you need a refresher, but is frowned upon by many universities when used as a source in any type of academic writing. Encyclopedia Britannica is another great site for an overview of a topic.  If you are unsure where to find information on your topic Google Scholar is a great place to start; it is a search engine that restricts results to quality academic resources.  While you may not be able to access all of the resources for free, you will be able to find many of the sources for free using the links provided from that search.

Citing College Essays

If you do choose to use any references in your college essay, then you want to be sure and cite them in a commonly recognizable and acceptable academic style.  The two most frequently used academic writing styles for undergraduate level writing are Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA).  Unless your instructions specify which format to use, choose the one you find easiest.

APA Style:

In-text Citation:

“Every 2 minutes an American is sexually assaulted.”

Source Format for References:

RAINN.  (2016). Victims of sexual violence: statistics. Retrieved September 30, 2016 from

RAINN website:

MLA Style:

In-text Citation:

Estimates of the number of women raped each year vary from 300,000 to 1.3 million (Chemaly).

Source Format for Works Cites/Bibliography:

Chemaly, S.  “50 Actual Facts About Rape.”  The Huffington Post.  October 26, 2012.  Web, 30

September 2015.  <>.

College Essay Samples

For many people, the easiest way to determine how to write a scholarship or application essay is to see how another student or a professional writer tackled their college essays.  Much like the fact that all great fiction writers are also avid readers, reading a good sample essay can help you come up with your own topics, thesis statements, and arguments.  In addition, sample essays can help you decide how to format your essay, whether you want to include citations, and, if you do, how to properly credit outside sources in the body of your essay.

College Drinking Campaign Essay

College Admission and Financial Aid Essay

College Athletes and Alcohol Abuse Essay

Write My College Essay

After reading this article, we hope that you feel better prepared to tackle your college essays.  However, we know that the task can be very daunting for many students, especially because the stakes are so high.  If you feel like you need additional help, one of our tutors can provide you the professional writing help and guidance you need to create your best college essay.  Our writers can work with you to help you select a prompt, come up with a format, narrow your topic, craft a thesis statement, find resources to support the claims in your essay, or even write a custom-written essay that matches your specifications.  If you are interested in learning more about this very popular student assistance program, click here.

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"College Essays: Examples, Prompts, and Topics." Student Network Resources Inc, 14 April. 2017. Web. 29 May 2022.

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